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Its colours they are fine - all over the world

Photographs of an Orange Order parade in Newcastle appeared on Facebook last weekend. But the demonstration wasn't in Co Down, but in Ontario, Canada, where Orangemen from Cambridge, Purple Hill, Kendal and Brampton were celebrating the Twelfth.

It was a reminder that Orangeism is an international phenomenon; the result of a combined mix of social, cultural and religious factors which saw the spread of Orange lodges to many far-flung parts of the world.

Orange lodges once existed in Malta, Singapore, South Africa, Gibraltar, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago and the Isle of Man. They still flourish in Australia, Canada, the United States, Ghana, Togo and New Zealand, as well as throughout the British Isles.

In my own Orange Hall is a copy of a transfer certificate for Alexander Craig, a Magheramorne man, who emigrated with his brother to Ottawa in the 19th century. The actual certificate is in the Canadian archives. Alexander's brother was the Grand Master of Ontario East around the turn of the 20th century.

It is interesting to think of the transformation for men such as Alexander and James Craig, when they left rural Magheramorne on the Antrim coast. But for the Craig brothers, there were a few constants - and one of them was the Orange Order.

In Canada, in 1900, numbers in the Order were so great that one-in-three adult male Protestants was an Orangeman, though numbers declined in the 20th century, for a variety of reasons.

Author Gary Dennis - not an Orangeman - reflected in his 1982 history of Orangeism in Muskota County, Ontario, entitled The Spirit of the Twelfth, that, "Orangemen helped to nurture this district - remove their names from the ... development of Muskota and the story would be sadly lacking."

Other authors in Canada concede that, while the presence of the lodges is gone in many areas, the ethos and influence of Orangeism, the moral code and essential outlook, remains.

Canada is a good example, to me, of the importance of the Orange Order and also how such a large organisation can decline in numbers.

I suspect that there are those in Northern Ireland - not all of them in the nationalist community - who hope the same will happen here.

Granted, the combination of secularism, modernisation and social dislocation so evident in our communities has had an impact on the Order, as it has affected churches and other bodies.

But I remain confident that the Orange tradition will remain - and will grow - in the years ahead.

For me, this is, firstly, because the Orange Order carries a strong genealogical bond; present members are often third or fourth-generation members and the Orange tradition is, literally, in their genes.

But there are others coming forward who are first generation; men who contact Orange Order headquarters by e-mail to see where the nearest lodge is, young men who see the Order as a strong focus for their heritage and culture.

When most of them walk out on the Twelfth, they do not do so to antagonise anyone.

They do so to celebrate their culture on what should be a fun family day out.

The presence of more children's entertainments, bouncy castles and so on, is a sure sign where the Orange tradition is heading: into the future. So when we walk proudly behind our banners today, we will be proud to again celebrate a culture which is about much more than the Battle of the Boyne.

I will be mindful that, in other areas, the parade is more tense, the enjoyment hampered by the sense of being under pressure.

As an optimist, I long for the day when the Twelfth can truly be a cultural celebration which passes unhindered - indeed, largely unnoticed - by those who do not care for it.

I am mindful of an example from Toronto early in the 20th century of how an Orange parade was rerouted around the home of a prominent Roman Catholic who was extremely ill.

This man had put up an Orange flag at his home each Twelfth. The two gestures were deeply symbolic: they show us that it is possible to have mutual respect and tolerance while still practising our own heritage and culture.

If there is to be a shared future in Northern Ireland, the Orange Order will have to be part of it; the number of spectators from all walks of life and backgrounds who turn out in their tens of thousands to see the colour of the parades underlines this point.

The Orange tradition is an essential part of the gene pool of the Protestant community.

Sir Hamilton Harty - one of Ireland's greatest composers - included in his Irish Symphony a movement entitled The Twelfth Night.

It rested musically with the Croppy Boy, introducing the Boyne Water into the orchestral movement.

What Harty did musically others must seek to achieve in other ways if there really is to be a meeting of minds.

Acceptance of the legitimacy of the Orange tradition and its cultural value will be a key test from our perspective in the years ahead.

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